Jul. 2nd, 2012

It seems I cannot go through my backlog of RSS feeds without encountering at least one smug anti-ebook graphic or text statement. I wonder if anyone who creates or reblogs these sentiments knows or cares how important ebooks have become for people who cannot read standard print books because of a disability.

For many people, disability is not a real thing that affects real people who live everyday lives and want to do things like enjoy stories, keep up with current events and culture, or seek knowledge of things from the past. It's aggravating that people who profess to love books so much have no concept of people who are slightly different from them valuing the same things even though they can't enjoy books in exactly the same format or container.

Books in electronic format help people with many different impairments access written information.

A person with low vision (legally blind but with some usable vision) may require large print in order to read visually. Large print paper books are available, but the title selection is limited, they are very expensive, they go out of print much more quickly than editions with standard size type, and they are much larger, heavier, and more difficult to hold than standard print books. This last part is especially galling for someone with an additional disability that affects arm and hand strength and dexterity if they must hold the book close to their face instead of being able to rest it on their lap or a table top. In addition, paper large print books are often available only in 14 or 16 point type, when many people require 18, 24, or even larger type sizes in order to read comfortably for extended periods of time. With most ebook formats and display devices, fonts can be adjusted to the size needed, and some color screen devices even support high contrast (yellow or white text on a black or navy blue background) which is helpful for many people with low vision.

Braille readers also benefit from ebooks. Braille books are even harder to come by, and even larger than large print books. In most countries, braille books are only available from government-sponsored lending libraries or a handful of nonprofit organizations that serve blind people. A library may have only one copy of a book, and of that copy becomes lost or damaged, a replacement may never be made. My own local braille lending library lost thousands of books a few years ago due to a mold infestation caused by lack of funding for adequate climate-controlled storage facilities. The embossing plates for those books were not kept on hand so those books can't be replaced. Limited copies mean that someone may have years on a waiting list before they get access to a book they want to read. Even if you are first in line, it can take a couple years for a new book to be made available in braille, if it even gets transcribed in the first place. Having access to a digital braille file or a DRM-free ebook that can be displayed on a refreshable braille device means being able to have access to more books, more quickly, and even keeping a personal archive of files of books you've enjoyed. Can any of you print readers imagine only being able to get books from the library and not having the option of buying your own copy to keep? Never getting a book as a gift?

Text-to-speech is another way that ebooks are useful to people with print disabilities, and not just blind people: dyslexia, other learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, brain cancer/tumors, epilepsy, paralysis, cerebral palsy, stroke survivors, etc. If you can't see the page, interpret symbols, hold the book, turn the page, etc., you might be able to hear and process synthesized speech to gain access to the same information. Some text-to-speech programs are optimized for specific circumstances, for example programs for people with dyslexia may highlight the word on the screen as the computer reads it out loud, which can improve comprehension over simply hearing the words from the computer or an audio recording of human speech. DAISY, the combined ebook and audiobook format for people with disabilities (and a close relative of EPUB) is especially suited for this purpose.

And, finally, some people who may not be able to hold a print book and turn paper pages may be able to use assistive technology to use desktop, laptop, or tablet computers to read ebooks in that manner.

So before you snark on ebooks, think about who you may be snarking. Since few people reach old age without acquiring a significant disability, you may be short-changing your future self.

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teafeather

July 2012

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